What distinguishes guilt from shame, and can either bring lasting peace to our society?
He sat on the bed, his words shooting out of him with great acceleration as he predicted his ending to the 5-book series. We were just a night or two away from the final reveal. Instead of his words I looked at his teeth. They were yellowish, but that was genetic. I could see the plaque up near the gum line. In between his front two teeth, a bit of his dinner was lodged.
“Oliver,” I interrupted him, “You really need to brush your teeth.”
His shoulders slumped and his words trailed off. A little of the light left his eyes. In the small but universal way they say mothers do, I had shamed him.
On the most recent episode of Chicago Med, the omniscient character played by Oliver Platt mused over the difference between shame and guilt. The story arc featured a movie theater shooter who had been rushed to the hospital alongside his trample victims, himself riddled with bullets.
Amongst the injured was the high school Algebra teacher who had gunned the perpetrator down with his own, legally concealed weapon. In the next ten minutes he went from anonymous to famous. His Twitter followers had grown from 120 to over 90,000, which he shared with the two nurses attending to his head wound. “One of them is me,” stated the younger nurse. We watched his ego inflate on-screen.
I knew that NBC is the most liberal of the major television networks, so I was more prepared than our fictional hero to learn that the attacking gunman turned out to be a 17-year-old prankster who had merely threatened the audience with a leaf blower. Between one commercial break and the next we watched the aforementioned character travel the chasm between hero to villain, as he realized that a fair amount of the carnage had been caused by his response to an imagined threat.
Recently, Eula Biss wrote about the moral problem of being white in her provoking New York Times essay, “White Debt.” While she wrote about race in particular, I am choosing to generalize from there.
She introduces white guilt by invoking Nietzsche’s writing from The Genealogy of Morals.
“The moral concept of Schuld (‘‘guilt’’), Nietzsche wrote, ‘‘descends from the very material concept of Schulden (‘debts’).’’ Material debt predates moral debt. The point he is making is that guilt has its source not in some innate sense of justice, not in God, but in something as base as commerce.”
Ms. Biss touches on the familiar practice to those of us living upper middle class lives of painting walls and planting tomatoes at a home the bank technically owns. She mentions the “good” school to which she sends her son. Nietzsche warned against a life of good built on a bedrock of evil, stating:
“But Nietzsche and I disagree on this, among other things. Like many white people, he regards guilt as a means of manipulation, a killjoy. Those who resent the powerful, he writes, use guilt to undermine their power and rob them of their pleasure in life. And this, I believe, is what makes guilt potentially redemptive.”
Brene Brown, a New York Times bestselling author and “vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame” researcher at the University of Houston has this to say on the topic.
“I believe that there is a profound difference between shame and guilt. I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful — it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort. I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”
Guilt is our internal feeling as we make choices that are supported by an inequitable society, whereas shame is the response brought on by societies damnation of us as an individual. The cause and effect of the external factors are what make the fundamental differences.
Back in fictional Chicago, our Algebra-teacher hero turned villain leaves the hospital. He is instantly and chokingly surrounded by the media, demanding an explanation for why he pulled his gun. “It was an honest mistake!,” he yells, clearly distraught.
This is the same wording he then uses on a note he types on his phone before setting it carefully on the curb and stepping into oncoming traffic. He ended his life because of an honest mistake — but was it because of guilt, or because of shame?
There is little doubt that he felt both in that instance. But one left room for redemption, while the other reframed his sense of self in a way that was untenable. Separating the act from the actor is vital in the way we behave.
Dan Ariely describes research on the difference that college students feel about the act of cheating versus about being a cheater. In the experiments, they entered a room where there was cash provided by the researchers. All conditions were identical except the wording of the instructions. In the first sample group, participants were told that researchers were interested in “how common cheating is on college campuses,” while in the second, they were told the question at hand was “how common cheaters are on college campuses.”
The subjects who were told that the act of cheating was the focus of the study took more money than the subjects who were told that the study was investigating cheaters. The students were more comfortable with cheating than with becoming cheaters.
I submit that this was the case with our Algebra teacher. In one condition he was someone who shot an assailant. In the other, he was the shooter of an innocent boy. Once again, we are considering the difference between actions and identity. The prankster who set this all in motion in the first place was white. I imagine he would live the rest of his fictional life feeling guilt about his fatal choice.
Eula Bliss leaves us with hope that the power of guilt can motivate change.
“If debt can be repaid incrementally, resulting eventually in ownership, perhaps so can guilt.”
Hopefully in his fictional world he can repay his debt.
And hopefully in my real world I can stop using shame as a tool for change. It is ineffective.
Last night Oliver climbed off my bed to clean his teeth, but I never got to hear his prediction for the ending to our epic tale. In this instance he was a boy who forgot to clean his teeth. But as he muttered through his foamy mouth I had made him feel like a person incapable of taking care of himself. Which will likely do the opposite of motivating him towards act of self care in the future.
Whether it is teeth brushing or shooting, we should strive to separate the action from the individual. Identity feels fixed. Actions can be fixed. This is a starting point, one that may keep us from leaving our cell phones on the curb and walking into oncoming traffic.
There is work to be done, and we can use our guilt to catalyze it.
Photo credit: Flickr/tUcap